NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee Titans coach Mike Mularkey has made it clear what he wants out of his defense this season.
Turnovers. Turnovers. And more turnovers.
Players say the message has gotten through loud and clear.
“Takeaways,” Pro Bowl linebacker Brian Orakpo said. “We want takeaways. That’s what we want to emphasize. The key to really putting teams away is the turnover ratio, and we want to emphasize that each and every day.”
The Titans finished last season with 12 interceptions, one more than the year before, and tied for 18th in the NFL in that category. As a team, Tennessee committed the same number of turnovers (18) as it forced. That tied them for 17th in turnover differential.
General manager Jon Robinson revamped the secondary to help a defense that was 30th against the pass last season. Three of the eight Titans who intercepted a pass in 2016 — Jason McCourty (2), Perrish Cox (3) and Daimion Stafford (1) — are gone. Robinson signed veteran cornerback Logan Ryan from New England and safety Johnathan Cyprien from Jacksonville while drafting cornerback Adoree Jackson with the 18th overall pick.
Stripping the ball out at every opportunity is a top priority at training camp.
“We have to go to the football,” linebacker Wesley Woodyard said. “If you take notice of our practices, you see more guys getting to the ball. Trying to strip the running backs, multiple guys that when Marcus (Mariota) is delivering the passes, we got to be there to try to intercept things. It’s repetition. We’re doing great drills in practice to focus on that when we get to the ball make plays. The first guy wraps up, the second guy in gets the ball out.”
This is the Titans’ third season with defensive whiz Dick LeBeau and his second in full control of the defense. Tennessee ranked second in the NFL at stopping the run and tied for sixth with 40 sacks — the franchise’s biggest total since 2010. Orakpo earned a Pro Bowl berth along with defensive lineman Jurrell Casey.
Getting to the quarterback faster means the ball comes out faster, so the Titans signed Sylvester Williams as a free agent to play alongside Casey in the middle. They signed veteran linebacker Erik Walden, who had 11 sacks last year for Indianapolis, on the day the Titans reported for training camp. Mularkey said Walden already has revived memories of what the linebacker did to the Titans while with the Colts.
“He’s hard to block, ask our tight ends,” Mularkey said. “It’s just like the games, he’s very difficult to block. He sets the edge as well as our starters do right now. He’s got a mentality that we want. He’s great for our younger guys. He brings a lot to the table.”
The Titans also believe they have an advantage simply by being together with LeBeau long enough now to know the coordinator’s packages and schemes. Thinking has turned into muscle memory for the veterans, according to Woodyard. No more worrying if the defender should be in a hook curl, covering the curl flat or carrying a tight end deep.
“When your mind is relaxed, you can mentally be ready and be a step ahead of the offense,” Woodyard said. “That’s something we’re going to continue to get better at. We’ve been in this system for three years, and we understand this is the same thing I did last year. You just recognize it, and it makes you a lot faster.”
That’s why the Titans are confident they can be better on defense for a franchise chasing its first playoff berth since 2008 coming off a 9-7 season.
“If we just keep using camaraderie and chemistry and keep building as a defense, I think we’re going to be fine,” Orakpo said.
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